Hezbollah and media

Written by Noor Ul Huda 1:15 am

Hezbollah and Its Influence on the Media

This paper demonstrates the versatility and vulnerability of the media concerning the power and position of overt militant organizations – in this case Hezbollah.

Introduction

What Is Hezbollah?

In 1983, an attack on the US Embassy in Beirut killed 63 people and brought to light a new terrorist organization called Hezbollah or the self-proclaimed “Party of God”. Hezbollah, a Shiite organization, was born out of resentment for the Jews, and from the need to acquire greater representation and security for the Shia minority in Lebanon — which is currently being massacred by the Israel Defense Force (IDF). It emerged in Lebanon as a result of Israel’s occupation of the Southern region of the state in 1982, which at the time had a great Shia population.

After occupying the Southern regions, the IDF allowed Christian Lebanese militiamen to kill 800 Palestinian refugees and Shia civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.1 This turned even the previous Shia supporters of the IDF in Lebanon against Israel, and gave an even greater incentive to Hezbollah to organize an attack on Israel. Hezbollah’s creation has also been somewhat influenced by the Iranian revolution of 1979. In the earlier manifesto, the organization sought to liberate Jerusalem and Palestine, and create an Islamic state similar to that of Iran in Lebanon. To achieve this, it waged what it called a Jihad against the enemies of Islam — Israel being one of these enemies.

The organization claimed that their ideology was Islamic and rooted in the literal interpretation of the Quran. This, however, has led to the organization adopting extreme tactics, labeling it as a terrorist group in the past. Presently, Hezbollah not only exists as a militant group but also as a political party operating within and from Lebanon. Since its creation, it has been actively involved in attacks against Israel and the West. It was responsible for the 1985 hijacking of the TWA flight 847 to Beirut, and for 12 suicide attacks from 1985 to 1990. It also played a significant role in the Second Israel-Lebanon War and was recognized as the first “terrorist” organization to blend different warfare tactics.

Hezbollah fighters were well-equipped with flak jackets, communication equipment, night-vision goggles, sophisticated weapons like Anti-tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs), Rocket-propelled Grenades (RPGs), Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADs), rockets, mines, and mortars.2 It operated in small groups and used civilian structures to hide its identity and media as a propaganda tool. Hence, it became the first group to use hybrid warfare, combining guerilla, psychological and cyber warfare to fight the IDF.3

Funding

Hezbollah claims that its ultimate aim is to destroy Israel and expel the West from the Middle East. Hezbollah is allegedly backed by Iran and Syria – and there have been claims that Iran provides annual aid amounting to $200 million to Hezbollah. The Syrian government is reported to have provided military assistance, weapons, and training to the Hezbollah fighters. Aside from the aforementioned governments, the group is funded by charity organizations and criminal enterprises. They are allegedly involved in the drug trade, money laundering, and get funds from charities like Al-Aqsa International Foundation, Bonyad-e Shahid, and Al-Mabarrat Charity Association.4

The Unconventional Nature of Hezbollah

The presence of Hezbollah in Lebanon as a political party has strengthened its influence, and such legitimacy has provided the organization with an even greater outlet to further its propaganda. Hybrid warfare has lent an aura of unpredictability to Hezbollah. It operates in small cells — difficult to track and apprehend. It carries out suicide attacks, hit and runs, sabotage, kidnappings, and assassinations on one side — and political campaigns, media propaganda, social media recruitment campaigns, and fundraisers for the society on the other hand. The complex nature of Hezbollah has made it a difficult opponent to counter for the world powers.

Hezbollah realizes that the world is no longer a place for conventional war waged with swords and arrows. It needs the new media and uses it for its benefit. Hezbollah serves as the epitome of the symbiotic relationship between the media and terrorist organizations. This research paper is based upon the hypothesis that in Lebanon, media is being utilized as a source for mass mobilization in order to promote sectarian violence and terrorism. This hypothesis gives rise to certain questions regarding Hezbollah and its relationship with the media.

The media has an important role to play in the proliferation of terrorism and in legitimizing the non-state actors as well as terrorist groups. Therefore, how does Hezbollah employ the media as a propaganda tool to spread its agenda, within and outside Lebanon? What role does social media play in the recruitment of individuals for Hezbollah? And lastly, how does Hezbollah use the media to bring legitimacy to itself in Lebanon?

Hezbollah and the Media as Its Propaganda Tool

An important tool used by Hezbollah is psychological warfare to influence the minds of its target audience. Hezbollah uses the media to spread propaganda, create deterrence against Israel and the West, and to strengthen the resistance movement against Israel. The main proponent of this endeavor is Al-Manar, a pro-Hezbollah and Shiite broadcasting group. Using it since the 1990s, Al-Manar is the official television broadcasting network of Hezbollah. Hezbollah is the first terrorist organization to own its own TV station. Al-Manar translates to “the beacon,” and Hezbollah calls it the “station of resistance”.5

Nowadays Hezbollah uses it to broadcast 24/7, making it one of the leading broadcasting groups in Palestine and the Middle East. Through it shows it spreads anti-Zionist, anti-American, and pro-Hezbollah propaganda. Its show My Blood and the Rifle broadcasts videos of Hezbollah’s guerilla fighters in an effort to inspire viewers to join its cause —while Terrorists, addresses attacks against Lebanon allegedly carried out by IDF. It also broadcasts music videos with graphic images to sensationalize suicide bombings.6

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Hezbollah believes that it needs to document and film everything. The media is source of putting Hezbollah’s activity out in the open. The media coverage by news channels and news agencies besides Al-Manar keep Hezbollah in the limelight and keep it relevant. Hezbollah uses newspapers, magazines, social media and news broadcasts to document all of its successes. After every attack it carries out, it uses the media to claim responsibility for them. On 6th October, 2012, Hezbollah launched a drone attack on Israel. The drone was intercepted by the IDF once it breached the Israeli airspace and was shot down.

The failure of the drone attack is not what matters here. What matters is that on October 11th, Hassan Nasrullah, the leader of the Party of God, claimed responsibility for the failed attack in a televised interview broadcasted by Al-Manar. He even claimed that the drone was manufactured by Iran. This attack and the open acknowledgment of it by Hezbollah was a tactic it used to display its military power. The vast media coverage feeds Hezbollah’s power.7 All of the videos of attacks against Israel which Hezbollah uploads on YouTube, Twitter, and broadcasts through Al-Manar undermine the IDF and lower the morale of Israeli soldiers.8 It projects Hezbollah as a force to be reckoned with. Moreover, it gives people, who have suffered at the hands of Israel, hope.

Through media, it seeks to evoke emotions. Besides Al-Manar, it has a network of radio stations, Hassan Nasrullah’s official website, and over 50 websites in different languages operating under it.9 It appeals to all types of generations because it uses different mediums like post-cards, newspapers, websites, social media, and even video games.10 Hezbollah created its own video game called Special Force in which you fight enemies of Hezbollah, the IDF. This game not only helped in the recruitment of people for Hezbollah, but also in the glorification of Hezbollah and its fighters. It projected Hezbollah as the protector of the Muslim Ummah against the evil villain, Israel.

Hezbollah projects a softer image of itself on social media platforms in order to bypass the anti-terrorism security measures in place. So it glorifies images of its fallen soldiers or “martyrs”. The Attansakiyeh group is a Lebanon based website that operates multiple accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, and YouTube.11 On these accounts, it posts pictures of deceased Hezbollah fighters, pro-Hezbollah content including speeches from leaders supporting the group. 

A perfect example of the use of media by Hezbollah to spread propaganda is the 2006 Second Lebanon War. In most of the news coverage of the war, the message was that Israel’s response to the cross-border attacks by Hezbollah was disproportionate. It overreacted and caused severe damage to the lives of Lebanese civilians. Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera continuously ran stories on the war. An Arabic newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, published 24 photographs during the war and 22 of these pictures showed the damage done by IDF.12

All the news coverage by Middle Eastern News Channels and even by the European Channels like BBC showed the deaths and destruction caused by Israel. The coverage displayed Israeli troops entering and withdrawing from Lebanese territories, villages and cities being destroyed by Israeli bomb raids and people of all ages wandering aimlessly among the smell of death and destruction. Such coverage pushed the people towards viewing Israel as the aggressor and Hezbollah and Lebanon as the victim. The image of Hezbollah was further propagated through the access it provided of specific areas of war-torn Lebanon to journalists.

They favored Hezbollah and complained against Israel which denied the media access to the battlefield. Hezbollah used the media to pressurize the Israeli government to reach a ceasefire. Throughout the war, pro-Hezbollah blogs were published online by the people present in the war-zone, images surfaced of victims of Israeli brutality and Hezbollah won over the public opinion by shaping it. After the war, Hezbollah allowed interviews to be conducted with its leaders and members. The books written on the party are also a way of shaping public perception and highlighting its agenda. Books like Ted Dekker and Carl Medearis’s Tea with Hezbollah sensationalized Hezbollah leaders and portrayed them in as characters people could relate to, people with real fears and ambitions.

Hezbollah’s Use of Social Media as a Source of Recruitment

Since the 1980s, Hezbollah has only been associated with the title of “terrorist group”. However, the Party of God is far more than that; it is not just a violent non-state proxy of Iran but also a political party with strong public support within Lebanon. For the continual existence of any group or organization, public support is necessary. Apart from public support, it needs numbers, people joining the organization, and favoring its agenda. Hence, the Party must have strong public backing in order for it to recruit individuals.

When Hezbollah emerged in 1983, Lebanon was in the midst of civil war. Along with this civil war, Israel had invaded Lebanon under the pretext of destroying Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fighters taking refuge in the Southern regions of Lebanon. As a result of the war and the occupation, Lebanon’s infrastructure was destroyed and the militant groups had control over the administration of areas they controlled. Unlike other groups which relied heavily on exploiting the state’s resources for providing relief and welfare services, Hezbollah used the aid from Iran, Syria, the Shiite community, and from other non-profit organizations.13

It used the funds to carry out infrastructure development, construct hospitals, schools, clinics, and even cleaned the streets and disposed of garbage. It created the Iranian Martyrs Foundation which not only looked after injured Hezbollah fighters but also served the civilians.14 The services offered by Hezbollah have won over the hearts of people and they believe that the Party of God is indeed doing the work of God. It gains support of the people in favor of Hezbollah’s agenda and people start owing their loyalty to the organization, making recruitment easier.

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Hezbollah recruits people who show allegiance to its agenda. Recruitment is done by the Jihad Assembly which observes a future prospect for months or even years before approaching him. It then provides the new recruits with training, in Bekaa Valley and Iran, along with security. However, recruitment has spread beyond the boundaries of Lebanon, with the new media playing the primary role in it. It has allowed Hezbollah access to a greater population – a population it can easily influence through social media platforms. Since, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter do not allow it to have an official account, Hezbollah operates through a broadcaster called Al-Manar.

It used Al-Manar to gather support during the 2006 Lebanon-Israel War and now it uses it to maintain an online influence. Through Al-Manar’s Facebook, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channel, Hezbollah spreads its message. The YouTube channel posts videos of speeches by Hassan Nasrullah, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, while the other platforms allow Hezbollah to carry out diplomacy and intimidation through live broadcasts and online posts. Al-Manar’s Twitter feed is followed by up to 500,000 people.15 It makes it easier for people to become influenced and be aware of the Party of God.

Hezbollah recruits Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, and anti-Israel Europeans through social media and encrypted platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram to carry out attacks against Israel.16 The European recruits infiltrate Israel and then spread transnational terrorism. It uses anti-Israel Facebook groups to spot possible recruits and observes them. After doing so, it approaches them online and carries out correspondence through encrypted applications. In these “chats” the recruits are taught how to construct bombs and assigned targets.17 Due to Hezbollah’s efforts, Israel has had to create an entire unit to deal with Hezbollah’s beyond borders online recruitment. Aside from carrying out recruitment, the new media is also used by Hezbollah to correspond with other terrorist groups like Hamas.

It also uses encrypted applications to transfer funds to recruits, to assist in the creation of new terrorist cells to operate outside the borders of Lebanon and conduct surveillance on the IDF or specific targets. In 2016, Muhammad Zaghloul was one such recruit in the West Bank of Palestine who oversaw the formation of a terrorist cell against Israel under the instructions of Hezbollah.18 These instructions were given through WhatsApp. He was transferred a sum of $25,000 but only $5,000 reached him because the Israeli government blocked the transfer. The terrorist cell was aimed to carry out an attack on IDF but the planned was foiled before it could place, just like all other plans of Hezbollah orchestrated through social media.

Hezbollah and Legitimacy Through Media

Hezbollah derives its legitimacy from two things: religion and public support. Hezbollah gave religious justification for its acts of violence against the West and Israel. It claims that its ideology is rooted in Islam and their actions are not acts of violence but a Jihad, a war in the name of Allah, against the infidels. After the civil war, it undertook numerous development and welfare projects in the South and East of Lebanon, creating jobs for the inhabitants thereof and earned a place in their hearts. It won over people’s support and loyalty. This public support legitimized the actions of Hezbollah within the state of Lebanon and justified Hezbollah’s presence as a political and military entity.

However, to maintain this legitimacy in Lebanon it made use of the media. It controls the largest and most prominent broadcasting company, Al Manar, in Lebanon. Al Manar daily broadcasts pro-Hezbollah and pro-Iranian news, videos, speeches, and programs. It religiously covers Hezbollah’s development programs in the state and projects this image of Hezbollah as the sole party in Lebanon serving the interests of the people and putting them before everything else. Through Al-Manar, local newspapers, radio stations, posters, and social media, it carried out propaganda that where the state had failed to fulfill the people’s needs, Hezbollah has remained faithful to the people, and whatever it does, it does it for the people.

It widely covered Hezbollah’s efforts to clean the streets of Lebanon and its “success” stories. During the 2006 war, it continuously covered the aggressive attacks of Israel and the destruction it caused to the state. It projected Israel as the aggressor and the public support for Hezbollah increased, particularly after the war when the Party made efforts to rebuild Southern and Eastern Lebanon. This support manifested itself in the Lebanese elections following the war. Al-Manar not only glorified Hezbollah but also discredited the Sunni leadership of Rafik Hariri and later on, Saad Hariri by calling the government corrupt for taking bribes.

The aforementioned increased popular support for Hezbollah as the people relied more on it for justice and infrastructural reforms. However, after 2011 and Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, popular support for the party has considerably decreased. It is losing its legitimacy because now even the media is opposing Hezbollah. The Party has lost its credibility after it failed to fulfill the demands of people in the Bekaa valley and only exploited the state’s resources to prolong the war in Syria.19 The media played a significant role in granting Hezbollah legitimacy and now the media is doing its part to take it away.

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Conclusion

The media, like everything else in this world, has its advantages and disadvantages. While it keeps the masses informed, it also negatively influences them by shaping their perceptions and pulling them towards a certain group. In this case, that group is Hezbollah. Hezbollah is only one among numerous terrorist organizations that have used the media for propaganda. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabab — all of these organizations have used the media in one way or another to mobilize people to cause sectarian violence.

Hezbollah, like ISIS and AL-Qaeda, has also used the new media to recruit individuals and propagate terrorism and instability. These organizations are well aware of the wide reach of the media. The media makes it easier for them to influence people. When the media, old or new, provides them coverage, it legitimizes their actions, and gives these violent radical groups incentive to continue. To them, the media is just a means to an end. This end can be political, religious, or even economical. 


Endnotes

1 Seth Anziska, “A Preventable Massacre,” The New York Times, Sept. 16, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/17/opinion/a-preventable-massacre.html?mtrref=www.google.com&gwh=BEAEBAFEB25C2E6F1147D25189904D69&gwt=pay&assetType=REGIWALL).

2 Daniel E. Johnson, “Military Capabilities for Hybrid War: Insights from the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon and Gaza” (RAND Corporation, 2010), 3-4. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/occasional_papers/2010/RAND_OP285.pdf.    

3 Johnson, 3-4.  

4 “Timeline of Terror: A Concise History of Hezbollah Atrocities” (The Henry Jackson Society, 2012), 5.  http://henryjacksonsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Timeline-of-Terror_Membership-version_low-res.pdf

5 Avi Jorisch, Beacon of Hatred: Inside Hizballah’s Al-Manar Television (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2004).

6 Jorish, Beacon of Hatred.

7 Avi Melamed, “Drone Games,” Avi Melamed (blog), October 23, 2012, https://www.avimelamed.com/2012/10/23/drone-games/.

8 Steve Emerson, “New Report Exposes Hezbollah’s Terrorist ‘Media Empire’,” The Algemeiner, Sept. 5, 2019. https://www.algemeiner.com/2019/09/05/new-report-exposes-hezbollahs-terrorist-media-empire/.

9 Colin P. Clarke, “How Hezbollah Came to Dominate Information Warfare,” The RAND Blog, September 19, 2017, https://www.rand.org/blog/2017/09/how-hezbollah-came-to-dominate-information-warfare.html.  

10 Clarke, “How Hezbollah Came”.

11 Hector Martinez, “Hashtaggers For Hezbollah? How Social Media Fundraising Can Skirt The Rules,” Bellingcat, August 27, 2019. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2019/08/27/hashtaggers-for-hezbollah-how-social-media-fundraising-can-skirt-the-rules/.

12 Marvin Kalb and Carol Saivetz, “The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006: The Media as a Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict,” Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 12, no. 3(2007): 43-66.  https://doi.org/10.1177/1081180X07303934.

13 Lebanon: Recruitment Practices of Hezbollah, Including Instances of Forced Recruitment; Consequences for Those That Refuse to Join and Their Family Members, Including Instances of Torture; State Protection (2010-October 2013),” accessed December 12, 2019. https://www.refworld.org/docid/52a732a64.html.

14 Judith Palmer Harik, Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism (I.B.Tauris, 2005), 81.

15 Sheera Frenkel and Ben Hubbard, “After Social Media Bans, Militant Groups Found Ways to Remain, The New York Times, Apr. 19, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/19/technology/terrorist-groups-social-media.html.  

16 Zachary Keyser, “The under-Reported Use of Hezbollah’s Internet Recruitment Tactics,” The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 3, 2019. https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/the-under-reported-use-of-hezbollahs-internet-recruitment-tactics-606682.

17 Keyser, “The under-Reported Use”.

18 Michael Shkolnik and Alexander Corbeil, “Hezbollah’s ‘Virtual Entrepreneurs:’ How Hezbollah Is Using the Internet to Incite Violence in Israel,” CTC Sentinel 12, no. 9 (2019): 28. https://ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/CTC-SENTINEL-092019.pdf.

19 Eric Lob, “Is Hezbollah Confronting a Crisis of Popular Legitimacy?” (Crown Centre for Middle East Studies, 2014), 6. https://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/middle-east-briefs/pdfs/1-100/meb78.pdf.

Bibliography

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About the Author(s)

The author, Noor Ul Huda, has a bachelor's degree in international relations from the National Defense University. Her article "Malabar Exercise, 2018 and its implications for Pakistan and the Indian Ocean" has been published by the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad and in the 2018 issue of Pakistan in the World.

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